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Sleeper of the Week: ‘Only Yesterday’

Sleeper of the Week: 'Only Yesterday'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“Only Yesterday”
Dir: Isao Takahata
Criticwire Average: —

Studio Ghibli is one of the most celebrated animation studios in the world, producing such renowned classics as “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and most recently, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.” Now, 25 years after its initial release, the only Studio Ghibli film not released in the U.S. on any home video format finally gets a theatrical release. Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” follows Taeko (Daisy Ridley in the English dubbed version), a 27-year-old single woman, who takes the trip to the country to help the elder brother of her brother-in-law with the safflower harvest and along the way reminisces about her childhood in the 1960’s. Critics have raved about Takahata’s new film, praising his commitment to sensitively tackling personal stories not usually seen in animation, as well as his use of poetic imagery and negative space. Seeing as Studio Ghibli has temporarily halted production after Miyazaki’s retirement, this is a must-see for animation fans of all stripes.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Glenn Kenny, RogerEbert.com

“Only Yesterday” is one of a very distinguished handful of feature films that Takahata directed for Studio Ghibli, the outfit founded by Takahata’s friend and frequent collaborator Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata’s work has been marked by a determination to take on stories that U.S. viewers wouldn’t necessarily associate with animation, for instance his 1988 World War II survival drama “Grave of the Fireflies.” He’s also shown interest in expanding and changing up the aesthetic of anime, as in his 1999 “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” designed in the seemingly minimalist style of Japanese comic strips. “Kaguya,” which Takahata announced would be the last film he would direct, was a kind of grand summation of his work in terms of both form and content. “Only Yesterday” is a good companion piece for a number of reasons — like “Kaguya,” it functions as a highly sensitive and empathetic consideration of the situation of women in Japanese society — but it’s also a breathtaking work of art on its own. Read more.

Noel Murray, The A.V. Club

There’s never been much precedent for a movie like “Only Yesterday” in American multiplexes or video stores (back when there were video stores). Half of the film offers the pleasantly meandering tale of a young woman looking for some purpose in her life — a story geared more toward adults, in other words, but in an animated form that many mature American moviegoers still find inherently juvenile. The other half consists of the kind of anecdotal childhood memories common to young-adult novels, although the incidents Taeko recalls — like the one time she made her father angry enough to slap her — aren’t all exactly “fun.” A good long stretch of “Only Yesterday” is devoted to fifth-grade girls learning about menstruation, and how they live in perpetual fear that the boys will think they’re having their periods. Disney probably had no idea what to do with that. But it’s that betwixt-and-between quality that’s made “Only Yesterday” a favorite among the American Ghibli fans who’ve found a way to see it. The film has often been compared to the work of Yasujiro Ozu, in that so much of it is about the at-times-stifling domestic politics of one middle-class Tokyo family. And the deliberate pace — quietly, keenly observational — is definitely Ozu-esque. But the unflinching depiction of pre-adolescence as a time of anxiety, mood swings, and deep embarrassment is akin to a Judy Blume novel. And the 1982 scenes are reminiscent of old Hollywood romances like “Now, Voyager” or “Summertime,” where a woman takes a trip and figures out who she wants to be. Read more.

Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times

Taeko (voiced by the newly minted “Star Wars” phenomenon Daisy Ridley) faces pressure to marry, but Mr. Takahata anchors the film in her open-ended introspection, spun off from her sense that her fifth-grade self has joined her on the trip. Her reflections are interwoven with childhood flashbacks wrought with heart-catching immediacy: a formative school play, a first crush, a bittersweet meal of pineapple, her relationship with her caring but old-school father. Mr. Takahata’s psychologically acute film, which was based on a manga, seems to grow in impact, too, as the adult Taeko comes to a richer understanding of what she wants and how she wants to live. Read more.

Ty Burr, The Boston Globe

Only in an animated film, though, could you have a moment like the one in which the young Taeko walks away from a conversation with an equally shy little boy and steps suddenly into the air, soaring lyrically all the way home. A love story is part of the modern scenes as well, as Taeko is befriended by Toshio (Toshiro Yanagiba), who has left office life behind to become an organic farmer in the country. “Only Yesterday” lets the relationship progress at a measured and realistic pace, though; it’s a movie about finding one’s place in the world rather than simply finding a soul-mate. The farming sequences are the film’s most poetic and visually arresting, with Taeko, Toshio, and his family harvesting fields of safflowers, tromping on and drying the petals until their yellow turns to the rich red that will be used for rouge sold to women in the city. Takahata uses Hungarian folk music on the soundtrack in these scenes — Toshio is a fan — and the unusual choice takes “Only Yesterday” out of its specific cultural moment and into a larger sense of centuries passing and the planet turning. Read more.

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